Volunteer Firefighters: Work with Your Elected Officials for Greater Success

This article relates the experience of the North County Regional Fire and EMS Authority in Stanwood, Washington, as it transitions from rural to suburban, volunteer to paid. The organization is governed by a six-person Board of Commissioners that has committed to working with the department to ensure stability during the young department’s journey of change. Mathis Group was contracted to assist with the organization’s change process.

The nature of the job for elected officials in special districts, cities, counties, and all public-sector organizations puts their local government business into the combined time squeeze of work, home life, family, and recreation. Unless the elected officials enjoy “retirement,” the juggling act for the citizens-turned-elected-officials can be chaotic if the local government, fire chief, administrative staff, and citizens do not support their efforts to govern. A good relationship between the fire department and its chief and the officials also helps to ensure the department’s success and efficiency.

Administrative staff and the chief can develop consistent and helpful strategies for supporting their elected officials (referred to as the board in this article) and for dispelling fears that issues may fall through the cracks or that the board won’t follow up on commitments it makes to the chief.

Board members and the chief’s staff form a unique and eclectic partnership chosen by the electorate. Chiefs need to remind department management and the administrative staff that board members are the elected officials of their communities and sometimes tend to get busy and distracted. The board members must feel that the chief and the fire department respect them if their relationship is to be productive and positive.

We get busy with hectic schedules and crises, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get our own things taken care of. When everybody has an important agenda, it becomes easier to work with and see a board member as “just another employee” you hope to avoid if possible. A board member might have a request, suggestion, question, or something that may take too much of your time, and maybe you can’t really help, which might make matters worse.

Top management of the department can avoid misunderstandings if the board members feel that they were respected by fire department management and if management had listened to them, taken notes, followed through, and gotten back to them so they knew their voice was being heard.

Basic Ground Rules

Some recommendations for building a good relationship between the chief/fire department and the board follow:

Honor Confidentiality and Fairness

Treat each board member fairly and equally. Do not play favorites, and do not repeat confidential conversations you had with board members. If necessary, have the local government’s attorney or the chief’s confidential assistant present when issues need to be documented. Board members will understand this. Have your attorney present if a meeting involves information regarding a crime or a follow-through on a crime.

Sometimes, board members will share gossip, frustrations, or what grates on their minds. Listen to what is being said; don’t feel that you have to answer or “do something.” The chief or his staff should not share with other board members what one member may tell them in confidence. Telling everyone would undercut the board’s view of the professional chief who can listen and assist them in expressing their views more clearly.

In some cases, however, board members may share concerns that cannot be kept in confidence-such as suspected illegal activities, malfeasance in office, or dishonorable public practices. Refer these concerns to the board’s attorney.

Inform New Officials

After each new election, the chief should give guidelines pertaining to the procedures established for interacting with the department to board members. In fact, board norms should be discussed at the earliest meetings.

Document the Proceedings

Take notes at every meeting. There are no informal meetings when board members are present. Make sure you always have pen and paper with you or a designated staff member to record all suggestions, requests, and ideas expressed during a meeting.

Discuss and delegate topics to your staff to study further after the meeting. Your staff may already have information available from previous interaction with a board member. In this case, confirm the information to make sure that the request is still valid.

Take notes during telephone calls from board members. Don’t dismiss an elected official as just another caller. If board members send e-mail messages, make sure you follow through on them. Delegate requests to the department heads, who will follow up and get back to the board members. When a board member has a request, mandate, or suggestion, follow through on it immediately. If it will take several hours, days, or maybe weeks before the request can be completed, send the member interim reports advising as soon as the task is delegated and the expected timeline.

If you provide information to a board member, give that same information to the board president first, and then make it available to all the board members. Be fair, and treat all equally. Elected officials need to be oriented to how the fire department chief processes ideas and expresses concerns. An understanding of the chief’s thought process will help board members appreciate the chief’s sincerity, organization, and willingness to listen actively and then respond.

Board’s Designated Staff Member

Chiefs should designate a liaison to the board. The staff member should be able to do the following:

  • Understand the board’s needs.
  • Understand all types of personalities.
  • Notify the chief and all board members of public events, meetings in town, or functions involving the fire department that necessitate board members’ presence.
  • Follow through on the board’s e-mails to the chief, and respond to them.
  • Inform the chief about what is going on. Do not leave the chief out of the loop on anything.
  • Copy the chief on board members’ requests and messages to department heads.
  • Be prepared for the board members; think ahead and anticipate questions.
  • Prepare board members for their meetings with the chief and solicit questions before the meetings.
  • When bad things happen or a crisis occurs, make sure the chief-not the press, other staff members, or callers-informs the elected body. No elected official wants to be out of the loop, with no answers and no strategies, when something goes wrong or a crisis occurs. Keep your board members informed up front. Also, be prepared with strategies and options for board members so they can be reasonably prepared to respond to what is taking place. Common examples for board members are outlining talking points when new levies will be enacted and notifying the board about union leadership and issues.
  • Provide the board with political justification for working in crisis times such as explaining personnel injuries.
  • Confirm fiscal expenditures.
  • Suggest training for the board and staff in personnel policies and board norms.
  • Ensure union leaders commit to participating in the strategic planning process.
  • Ensure early sharing of agenda, packets, and future issues (i.e., support data, mailed invitations, scheduling).
  • Highlight incidents related to the fire department that news outlets will cover.

Complaint Tracking System

In one fire department, the citizen complaint process is handled through the chief’s office. (To make the word “complaint” less negative, the department changed the term to “customer service request.”) The idea is not only to have a centralized processing area but also to ensure that the chief’s staff is aware of the issues that are of interest to the community. It also enables the department to track trends and problem areas.

The staff processes the requests and records a service number, the department to whom the request is routed, a service address, a description, the name of the person making the request, and the person’s telephone number.

Generally, anonymous comments are not accepted. If the staff person believes the issue is compelling enough-for example, an allegation of a major health or safety issue-the issue is referred to the appropriate department for investigation.

The department is to report back to the chief’s office within 10 days and is required to notify the person who made the request that the investigation has been completed and the action that will be taken. If the department does not respond within the 10 days, a reminder is sent; this is rarely necessary.

If a board member makes a service request on behalf of a constituent, the same process would be followed, except that, in addition, the board member would be advised of the disposition as well.

Calendar Reminders

Anyone may forget or lose a reminder about a significant community date or event. The governing body should establish a centralized calendar and a system of automatic reminders. The fire department should make sure that its events are included in the community calendar and can use e-mail or phone calls to remind the board of these events as the dates approach.

Small Irritants Could Become Large Problems

Does it pay for a fire department/chief to work to build a pleasant working relationship with the elected officials? Does doing these “small things” matter? Following are a few examples of how little things can cause large problems.

  • A chief was fired because, although he was great with the big-picture items, he didn’t fix a minor issue board members said needed to be done.
  • Board members want to be treated with the respect they think they’re due because of the office they hold. If they don’t think the fire department staff respects them, things can get really tough. (This issue of respect is the “gorilla” in all boardrooms.)
  • An offhanded remark at a public gathering that’s perceived as being negative toward a board member will invariably get back to that board member and can easily come back to haunt the person who made the remark.
  • Elected officials have complained that the chief doesn’t show up at public events. Chiefs need to make an effort to attend the events board members consider the most important or designate the assistant chief, the deputy chief, or a department head to attend. Board members need to see chiefs participating in community events.

JANICE MATHIS is the former deputy chief of Pomona, California. She is a human resources consultant for Mathis Group, Rancho Cucamonga and Napa Valley, California.

JOHN CERMAK is chief of the North County Regional Fire and EMS Authority in Stanwood, Washington.

BILL MATHIS, Ph.D., is a management psychologist for Mathis Group, Rancho Cucamonga and Napa Valley, California.

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